Skip directly to content

Understanding Echolalia

Understanding Echolalia

Image: Arlo MagicMan

Echolalia is a repetitive speech behaviour, where words or sounds from another source (like a video, song or previous conversation) are echoed back. You might see it incorrectly referred to as ‘purposeless repetition’, but it most definitely has a purpose... you just have to figure out what it is.

Just like pronoun reversal, echolalia is actually a typical part of speech development. Most kids do it at some point, they just do it at a younger age or for not quite as long. Autistic kids sometimes have excellent memories and a keen ability to learn things by rote, which is probably one of the reasons they can become really good at it.

There are two types of echolalia - immediate (repeating something that was just heard) and delayed (repeating something that was heard some time ago) - and the functions of each vary across individuals and often overlap. So let's take a look at what some of those might be.

Note: I'm talking about echolalia in autistic kids here, but of course it's not a behaviour that's unique to just kids or autism.

FUNCTIONS OF ECHOLALIA

Filling in the gaps 

Sometimes when kids start to notice that conversations have a back-and-forth rhythm to them, they want to join in but aren’t yet ready to understand how to do that. They know that it’s their turn to say something, they just doesn’t know what that something is. So they fill the gaps with stuff that sounds like it fits.

Saying yes 

Kids learn to say no before they can say yes - maybe it’s just easier to say or perhaps they don’t hear yes modelled for them as often as no (how many times a day do you yell ‘Yes, do touch that!’) So for kids that don’t yet have a way of saying yes, repeating ‘Do you want a drink?’ back to you can be their way of saying ‘yes please’. 

Labelling things 

When language is developing, kids start out by simply repeating the sounds they hear attached to things (‘backpack’). Eventually they start to break them down and see the sounds as individual words or building blocks that can be combined in different ways to mean something else (wearing the backpack on their tummy and calling it a ‘frontpack’). Echolalia can sometimes just be an extension of that early labelling stage of language, with more elaborate labels created by kids who are physically able to repeat complex sounds but aren’t yet able to work out which part of the sound is the relevant bit (using ‘sit in your chair’ to mean ‘dinner’).

Calming down 

Routine can be comforting for autistic kids, making them feel safe and secure in a world that must often seem so random and confusing to them. Saying the same familiar sounds in a predictable way when they’re anxious or scared can be a way of getting some routine amidst the chaos and calming themselves. 

Stimming 

Short for self-stimulation (you can also call it stereotypy although I don’t know why you’d want to), it basically means anything kids do over and over to either calm or excite their nervous system. And echolalia is no different - it’s a repetitive behaviour that probably just feels good.

Practice

When you learn to do something new it’s fun to practice. Repeating stuff over and over is like saying ‘Hey look what I can do!’ - although in this case it’s probably more like ‘Cool I can make that popping sound with my lips, I’m going to do it three hundred times until I get it perfect’.

Having fun

Let’s face it, some things are just really fun to say (I like ‘skedaddle’). Most kids like to hear the sound of their own voice, and language can be fascinating to them. Have you ever seen the look on a baby’s face when they realise they can make noises come out? 

Processing 

As an adult you’ve had so much practice with your native spoken language that your brain processes it instantly. Listening to a foreign language is a different story - suddenly all you hear is a cacophony of sounds which you recognise as language, but it all runs together and you have a hard time separating it into words and working out what they mean. This is what it’s like for a kid who’s just starting to get a grip on spoken language. They need a moment to process what was just said, to replay it and work out the meaning (or double-check that they said the right thing). For some kids this replay happens out loud instead of in their head, and this may be one of the reasons for echolalia.

Recognition and memories

Sometimes the situation can act as a prompt for recalling a memorised script. Maybe they play the same ad jingle every time you go to the supermarket, so now your son repeats it whenever he sees a shopping cart. My favourite example of this was being stuck on a ride at Disneyland in front of a Christmas tree while they looped a safety message over and over. For years after that whenever Max was given a gift he would say ‘Please remain seated’ in Spanish. 

Communication

Some experiences can be too complex to express verbally, especially moods and emotions. So echolalic kids might choose to share these experiences by using a script instead, repeating part of a conversation (saying "now pick a brush" to tell you that they did art today) or lines from a show or movie that captured that same emotion (saying "Nemo, where are you?" when they're scared).

Protection

Echolalia can act as a buffer against the anxiety felt when sharing thoughts and feelings. For kids who have a tough time interpreting the reactions of others, and spend a lot of their time being misunderstood themselves, speaking their mind can be an overwhelming experience that leaves them feeling exposed and vulnerable. In these situations it can feel safer to use the words of another instead.

 

The bottom line

Looking at all those possible functions for echolalia it amazes me that anyone could ever call it purposeless. Figuring out why your kids are using echolalia will help you to communicate with them - part two looks at some ways you can do that.

This article was first published in September 2012.

Did you enjoy this post? Get new articles delivered to your inbox, or follow Snagglebox on Twitter and Facebook to keep up with the latest.